"anybody can wear nail polish and jewelry," he told them when they laughed.
I just spent an hour having my hair "polished" by my three sons, who are 6, 4, and 1 1/2. I dearly wish that I could get out the brushes and clips, that I could endure their twists and pulls, that I could look in the mirror held up for my approval, without having this little wedge of gender rebellion mixed in with the beauty parlor fun. I wish I didn't notice that the 6 y/o chooses the word "barber" to describe them, rather than stylist or beautician or even just plain hair cutter. How does he know what a barber is, does anybody say it any more? How does he know to choose that more masculine word to describe himself rather than its more feminine counterparts?
I hate that I even notice when we're doing something generally considered a "girl" thing. I have such gender-neutral ideals, yet still bear the marks of so much social programming. I hate that I flinched before ordering G the requested pink lunchbox with a butterfly two years ago. Not just flinched, I ignored the request and said "ooh, look at this one with the gecko." The one with the gecko was blue. And when he asked for the butterfly again, which I totally supported intellectually but secretly worried about (having notsomuch experience with 4 and 5 year olds yet, or how cruel they might be, or how he'd take it), I put off the order. I asked again a week later. Look, see all these options? Which one would you like? He chose the pink. I ordered it. Plus the gecko, for backup, for the inevitable day when he would come home and inform me that pink is for girls and that he cannot carry that lunch box any more. Because surely even at the super-liberal touchy-feely preschool, there are one or two kids who have absorbed the pervasive girls-only and boys-only rules out there, and who will innocently serve as society's gender police among their peers.
He proved me wrong. Maybe one comment was made all year, and he didn't even notice it. He happily carried the pink lunchbox until it fell apart, and then we ordered a bigger purple one with lime green monogram for this year. When somebody told him that Yo Baby is for toddlers, he asked for Yo Kids for a while, then switched back, because he likes Yo Baby, and anybody who wants to can eat it. By the time kindergarten arrived, he was growing his hair out, and continued to do so until it reminded me of Leif Garret. He wore pink stripes on pajama day. He brought his favorite stuffed animal, the one he sleeps with, for show and tell. Twice. And then last Monday, when his class shared what each of them did over the weekend and his highlights included painting fingernails and toenails with his mom, and most of the boys laughed and said "nail polish and jewelry are for girls," he responded, "that's not correct. Anybody can wear nail polish and jewelry." He came home and asked me to remove the polish, and I hurt for him...until he asked me to replace it with acid green on his fingers and toes. He said it was too hard to see the other color.
He's doing it. He's making his own choices, and as he encounters the rules (spoken or unspoken) that some people lay down, he thinks about the rules and decides whether they make sense. Most of them don't. Kindergarteners aren't old enough to have crushes? Silly. Pitting boys against girls and punishing all the members of one gender when some of them act out? Unfair and hurtful. Coming down on anybody for what color they're wearing or how long their hair is? Utterly ridiculous. And you know, his classmates are rolling with it. He's this amazingly self-possessed, confident, and well-liked kid.
There's this fear that if you let kids make their own choices, that they'll be ostracized, that their soul will be crushed...or perhaps worse, that they'll be ostracized but their soul won't be crushed and they'll become a total weirdo pariah. We often fail to consider something far more likely: that preventing them from making their own choices will teach them the very same stupid rules that we're hoping to protect them from. We are the bullies picking on our own kids and teaching them that it's not ok to be themselves. We find ourselves purposefully squashing a kid's interests because he might get squashed by somebody else. Pretty twisted.
I think, honestly, that often the lame messages kids pick up about what they can and can't do - the messages they later enforce by handing them on to their peers - originally come from their parents, who are lovingly trying to prepare them for the cruelty of the world. By protecting them in this way, we create the very dynamic we're trying to protect them from, and perpetuate it. And then, after teaching them how to conform, we worry about whether they'll be able to stand up to peer pressure as teenagers.
In my son's case, all I have to do is stay out of his way and sit on my worries. I try not to hand down my own gender stereotypes and other baggage, and when he comes up with one of his own, like "only girls can be ballerinas," I ask him, "is that true? Let's find out," and we launch our own internet investigation. Maybe, if I can keep doing that, he will sit on the floor some day with his kids and let them play with his hair, and none of them will think anything of it at all.